By Rebecca Rivas Of The St. Louis American
Special to the NNPA News Wire from The St. Louis American
Hundreds packed into a church in Bridgeton on Thursday, October 15 to find out why St. Louis County has had an emergency plan silently in place since October 2014 for a potential “catastrophic event” at the Bridgeton and West Lake landfills – which are located northwest of the I-70 and I-270 interchange.
At any moment, an underground fire in the Bridgeton Landfill could reach the wastes from 1940s atomic bomb production that are buried only an estimated 1,000 feet away from the fire, said Karen Nickel, a mother in Bridgeton who founded the West Lake Landfill Facebook page.
If that happens, toxic fumes – and possibly particulate matter – could spread throughout the region and potentially force people into shelters or to evacuate, according to the county’s emergency plan. Those who live in Bridgeton, Hazelwood, Maryland Heights, the Village of Champ and the city of St. Charles are directly affected, the plan states. The first response would be for people to “shelter in place,” by closing windows in their homes, schools or workplaces.
Nickel and Dawn Chapman, co-founder of their group Just Moms STL, led the community meeting at the John Calvin Presbyterian Church of Bridgeton.
Many in the audience wanted to know why the people working hardest to spread awareness about the issue are local mothers through their Facebook page – not St. Louis County Executive Steve Stenger and other local government leaders. This week, several school districts send out notices that they are developing emergency plans, which further worried audience members.
“If this emergency plan existed, why are we not aware of it?” said Cole Kelley, a Ladue resident and mother of three. “Even five miles away are Maryland Heights, Ladue, Frontenac. This is not just limited to Hazelwood and Bridgeton. You have highly densely populated areas of St. Louis and people aren’t even aware this is existing.”
Mark Diedrich, director of the county’s Office of Emergency Management, attended the meeting and responded to Kelley saying, “We won’t know how far anything is going to reach until it happens. I know that’s not the answer you want to hear.”
On September 3, Missouri Attorney General Chris Koster released a report that showed the fire could hit the radioactive waste within three to six months.
That’s the worst-case scenario, said Ed Smith of the Missouri Coalition for the Environment (MCE). The best-case scenario is that the fire ends in five years, like the landfill owners Republic Services hope, Smith said.
Koster is currently suing Republic Services for alleged violations of law associated with the still-burning fire. Nickel read a line from his recent report.
“Republic Services does not have this site under control,” Koster said. “Not only does the landfill emit a foul odor, it appears that it has poisoned its neighbors’ groundwater and vegetation.”
In December 2010, an underground fire was detected in the “north quarry” of the inactive 52-acre Bridgeton Landfill. In his September report, Koster said that the radioactive waste is moving closer to the north quarry and the waste exists in more places than previously thought.
Nickel also said that Republic Services never built an “isolation barrier,” as owners promised in 2013 in an agreement with Environmental Protection Agency. Koster sued the company to order them to comply, and the case is scheduled to go to trial in March 2016. But Nickel said now it’s too late to build a barrier because they can’t find a place that doesn’t have radioactive waste to construct it.
“We are calling for a safe and permanent solution for the radioactive waste,” Nickel said. “It can never again come in contact with a fire. That can never be allowed to happen.”
Many people in the audience said they have already been feeling the effects of the awful-smelling odor that the landfill fire has been releasing for the past five years. In 2013, Missouri Department of Natural Resources conducted air tests and found that the fire was indeed letting off harmful gases. The air testing showed increased levels of benzene, a known carcinogen, and hydrogen sulfide, a neurotoxin.
Shhdwafi Youssef, 16, a student at Pattonville High School, said that she is part of the marching band. During morning rehearsals, they breathe in the odor.
“Our eyes burn, and it’s not a comfortable thing for any student to experience,” she said.
She was recently diagnosed with MS and an auto-immune disease, and doctors can’t tell her what led to the illnesses.
“I’m angered,” she said. “Just a Facebook page doesn’t help out. If you know this is affecting your generation and also your future generation, why don’t you stop it?”
Tonya Mason, a resident of Spanish Village, said she has been “sheltering” in her home for more than five years.
“We can’t open our windows,” she said. “Our eyes burn when we walk outside. We vomit when we get out of our cars. We know there’s something in that dirt.”
She said no one has tested the landfill area that is currently burning.
“Why would it not be in the middle?” she said. “We don’t know what’s burning right now.”
Ama Vasilenok said she lived 200 miles from where the disaster at the Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant in Ukraine took place in 1986. There, an explosion and fire released large quantities of radioactive particles into the atmosphere.
Many in her family died of brain cancer, though they were told that they were too far to feel the effects. Sweden, 700 miles away, felt the effects too, she said.
“Our distance in St. Louis County is much less than 800 miles,” she said. “We will not be talking about a Rams stadium, or if the state can afford to put millions of dollars into that. They have no money to save two million people. Who will pay for all of those expenses for the cancer, for lupus, for breathing problems?”
She said they will go bankrupt paying to clean up this mess if elected officials continue to stand by silent.
One man said he worked with the military in Iraq and Afghanistan in identifying similar airborne hazards.
“Particulate matter is the scary name of the game,” he said. “From just what this lady said earlier – that when she gets out of the car, it’s bad enough to where her eyes are burning and she’s feeling sick – that’s very scary. Is the state, or whatever appropriate authority, checking on the air samples for quality and what particulate matter is found in this immediate vicinity?”
Chapman said that they’re not checking air samples for particulate matter.
At the meeting, State Sen. Maria Chappelle-Nadal slammed Diedrich for not contacting organizations like the American Red Cross. Chappelle-Nadal, who represents the area, said she recently spoke with all of the leadership at the Red Cross office off of Lindbergh Boulevard.